This article originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of Esquire. To read every Esquire story every published, upgrade to All Access.
For the last eight years, I’ve been stalked by a man I do not know. I’ve never had a conversation with him. I know his name, but I won’t say it. I know what he looks like as well as I know the stoops and curbs of my own neighborhood, but I don’t know where he comes from, how he lives, or why he chose me. As I write this, he’s in jail, but he still sends me pornographic magazines, and he still calls me almost every day.
I don’t know how it will end, but this is how it began.
Early one Sunday morning, I’m jolted awake by pounding on my front door. I roll into my robe and rush to discover Leslie, my four-hundred-pound, not-quite-right neighbor from down the hall, dressed as usual in a rumpled, food-stained shirt and blue jeans so filthy they’ve acquired the texture of greasy canvas. There’s another guy with him, standing slightly behind, an oddball in a ridiculous getup—dark sunglasses and an aviator cap.
“My friend wants to meet you,” Leslie pants, and I get a whiff of the chocolate I can see caked in the corner of his cracked lips.
“Come here,” Nancy whispers. “Near me. There’s some freak over there staring at you.”
“Leslie,” I say firmly, employing the language and tone our building’s tenants have learned to use during these occasional episodes, “this is not allowed.”
I start to shut the door, but Leslie’s friend sticks his foot in the way. I step back, pulling the door with me for momentum, then slamming it.
Back in bed, as my breathing slows and my brain unwinds, I remember the weight of his friend’s foot against the door and play Where’s Waldo? with that face, trying to count the number of times I’ve seen him in my building.
A few weeks later, I’m meeting a friend to see a matinee at a movie theater about twenty blocks from my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Nancy is waiting in line when I arrive. As I approach, she gestures to me.
“Come here,” Nancy whispers. “Near me. There’s some freak over there staring at you.”
The sun is so bright, I can’t get more than a flickering glimpse, but I recognize the guy weaving between the cars parked along the curb. He’s wearing those dark sunglasses and that stupid aviator cap.
“There’s a guy following you, and he won’t leave you alone?” the detective asks. “Well, what do you look like?”
I begin to get a lot of hang-up calls. I mention the situation to a few friends, and they all have the same easy solution: “Just change your number.” As though this hasn’t crossed my mind a hundred times. But what should I do about my listed business phone, the number I make my living from? No one has an easy answer to that question. I am a caterer. I’ve built my business exclusively by word of mouth, and my livelihood is not going to continue to be very lively if all of a sudden my phone number becomes a big secret. The phone company’s suggestions (call forwarding or a mechanical message that automatically gives out the new number) aren’t much help.
Some evenings, returning to my neighborhood and passing the pizza parlor on Broadway, I see the stalker sitting at the long, narrow Formica counter in front of the window and facing the street, staring at the sidewalk as if it were a television. His skin has the slick, thick quality of unworked Silly Putty, and the earflaps of his aviator cap dangle down on either side of his face like a pair of broken wings. When he sees me, he gets up and drifts outside, following me like a vapor trail.
The first time I’m finally able to get a phone call through to my neighborhood precinct, the detective turns out to be much more curious about me than the stalker.
“There’s a guy following you, and he won’t leave you alone?” the detective asks. “Well, what do you look like?”
I’ve never been crazy about the trip down to my basement. The elevator is slow and squeaky, and the basement itself is a labyrinth of rooms with low, uneven ceilings, rough, painted stone walls, and overhead pipes, all wrapped in a thick, padded silence that not even the prolonged shriek of a car alarm can pierce. One Thursday afternoon while doing laundry, I turn the corner to discover the stalker hunched over one of the dryers, head thrust deep inside, hands moving in a steady dog-paddle motion to scoop up my clothes and inhale them. I freeze, then backpedal to the elevator, pressing and pressing the buttons until the old door creaks shut.
Jack, my building’s super, installs convex mirrors in the elevators and hallways so I can see blind spots. He warns all the tenants to tighten up security at the intercom, and he puts an alarm on the basement door.
Barred from my building, the stalker now sits motionless for hours, like a camel, on the neighboring stoops while I wonder if I’ll ever manage to get to the post office without being spotted. When Jack spreads my story from super to super, the stalker is moved down the street and off our block, but on weekends, when most of the supers are off duty, the stalker scuttles back up my block in quick, short surges, like a centipede.
Some days, my mailbox is so full of stuff from the stalker that it springs open as soon as I turn the key, spilling out flyers, thick, colorful catalogs, invitations to Star Trek conventions, and brochures for vocational-training schools. I also get letters. There’s no mistaking his envelopes, addressed in distinctive block printing that veers down sharply to the right, as though his unbalanced teeter-totter brain has concluded that my first name is lighter than my last.
I’m always startled when one of those take-out menus gets shoved under my door. It can sound so loud—like a crack of thunder. One afternoon, I stomp over and use my toe to pull a new menu under the door. But the paper is stuck. As I bend over to pick it up, I see that the menu isn’t a menu; it’s a note from the stalker.
He’s right there on the other side of my door, still holding on to the paper. Only a fingertip away.
You don’t have to be a cop-show connoisseur to recognize that the two-six in the borough of Manhattan looks nothing like most of the precincts on TV. It’s much dingier, the lighting is worse, there is very little fresh air, and even less hope.
The detectives act as though I were strolling past their construction site instead of standing before them asking for help. By the time I get to the right desk, I’m walking with my shoulders rolled forward like a newly endowed sixth grader. I sit down, wrapping my legs around the chair to steady myself and folding my hands in my lap. I show the detective the answering-machine tapes and the mail I’ve gotten. He doesn’t even glance down. He rakes his eyes over me—taking in my nail polish and jewelry, looking for anything bright, tight, short, or pretty—anything that would make me responsible for having attracted a stalker.
I am getting so many hang ups that I hesitate every time the phone rings.
His questions all suggest the same thing. Do I know this guy? Is he my boyfriend? Did I do something to him?
I am getting so many hang ups that I hesitate every time the phone rings. The stalker starts talking, and I stop answering the phone altogether.
My message tapes begin to fill up with his voice, an eerie, subdued, trancelike lisp, like Mike Tyson on quaaludes. He repeats the same message over and over: “Call me; come visit me. Call me; come visit me.” And he always identifies himself as Clark Kent.
A few of my friends think it’s amusing to bait the stalker by picking up the phone when he’s leaving a message and shouting into the receiver. I try to grab the phone away from them. I know I’ll pay for their indulgences with return calls clustered in groups of twenty or thirty around the crazy-people times of midnight and 6:oo A.M.
I’m at a meeting at the Guggenheim Museum, bidding on a $26,000 catering job, standing with the client and a museum representative in the center of the rotunda, where parties are held, when I spot the stalker. He’s sitting outside, staring at me through the enormous Fifth Avenue window. I’m usually a whiz at these meetings, but now I can’t concentrate. What will I do if he comes inside? How am I going to get past him to leave? The others sense my distraction, and when they ask me what’s wrong, I blurt out the truth. The museum’s chief of security calls the police.
The squad cars arrive with curb-bumping urgency. The officers push the stalker against a concrete wall, restraining his hands behind his back and asking me, “Can you identify this man?” The stalker’s face is turned to one side and flattened against a cold cement wall, revealing only a single staring eye and a gaping mouth. He looks doomed. He looks like a dead fish on ice.
Unless you’re a celebrity, change your phone number and move. This seems like useless advice. Stalkers stalk.
I step forward to identify him, but somehow, as I start to speak, as my thoughts pass through the emotional tunnel that connects impulse to action, what begins as determination comes out sounding more like defeat.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I wail.
As the police lead the stalker toward a squad car, one of them asks me offhandedly for my order of protection. I tell him I don’t have one. They stop. They stare at me, shaking their heads as they uncuff the stalker. I watch him disappear down the sidewalk, rubbing his wrists, but the police don’t let me off quite so easily. Without an order of protection, the stalker might be creating a nuisance, but he’s not committing a crime. Don’t I understand never, ever to call 911 unless I’m being “officially” harassed?
By the time I get home, my answering machine is already jammed with messages. I don’t bother listening. I lean out my window and look toward the end of the block, trying to see if the stalker is calling from the corner phone. I’m not sure what to do. All the experts seem to make the same recommendation: Unless you’re a celebrity, change your phone number and move. This seems like useless advice. Stalkers stalk. If I were to move, I would have to change my favorite restaurants and stores, my doctor and my dentist. My friends would need to move as well, since the stalker already knows where most of them live. I’d have to give up my business and leave the city. In my neighborhood, people know me and keep an eye out for me and are willing to help. Moving to another neighborhood would be like entering the witness-protection program without the protection.
I don’t like to talk about the stalker because, naturally, most people are curious about him.
So instead, I make a smaller world. Give up riding my bike and playing tennis in Riverside Park. No longer sit in outdoor cafés. Stop answering the doorbell; whenever I hear the buzzer, I lean out the window to see who’s leaving the building, yelling to call back my friends, messengers, or the UPS guy. I never sit with my back to a door, and whenever people invite me someplace new, I ask so many detailed questions about the design and layout that my friends remark on my newfound obsession with architecture. They think I’m just eccentric, and I’m happy to let them think that. I don’t like to talk about the stalker because, naturally, most people are curious about him. What does he look like? Where does he live? Where does he get his money? These kinds of questions feel like the stalking itself—an attempt to get me to acknowledge and respond to this weirdo who won’t leave me alone. I don’t want to know anything about him. My inability to talk to people about this major disruption in my life makes me feel even more isolated.
Calling on my early Catholic training, I put my faith in rituals—a whole new set of them. I learn to split my concentration and scan corners before I turn, elevators before I enter. I wake up in the middle of the night to unlock and re-lock my doors. I look under beds, in closets, and behind doors. I buy a see-through shower curtain so I don’t have to waste time casing the bathroom. I eventually get to the point where I can’t get back to sleep until I’ve checked the ledge outside my seventh-floor bedroom, because by now the stalker is everywhere.
The first small crack I see in the police stone wall occurs in 1993, when a detective tells me, “Maybe I’ll take a drive over to the guy’s apartment and scare him.”
Later, he calls me to report, “That guy is really creepy. He sits in this dark room with a big poster of Superman on the wall, and he wears dark glasses.”
“You bitch!” the stalker screams into my answering machine following the visit from the police. This is the first time he’s ever sworn. “You bitch! You bitch! Come outside right now!”
Back at the two-six, I end up at the desk of a new officer, Curtis Merchant. Once again, I methodically lay out my stalker kit—the phone tapes, letters, gift subscriptions to magazines, and dozens of invitations to Star Trek conventions, all signed “From your boyfriend, Clark Kent.” Detective Merchant picks up the answering-machine cassette, flipping it back and forth between his thumb and index finger like it’s a playing card and he’s about to trump.
“I like this kind of case,” he tells me as the other detectives look on from behind their desks. “I’ll take it.”
On the first of the long summer holiday weekends, my neighborhood is a tumbleweed town—not a soul in sight. I’m sealed in my apartment with the air conditioner cranked to cadaver, watching Sunday-afternoon movies, when the doorbell starts buzzing—long, painful blasts that I time like contractions: six to eight minutes in duration, ten to twelve minutes apart. I call 911 and mention Detective Merchant’s name.
The stalker is gone by the time the police get to my door. But that doesn’t matter. This time, the responding officer makes out an incident-information slip. A tiny piece of paper, no more substantial than an elementary-school hall pass. But with the complaint number from that slip, Detective Merchant can now assign a case number.
I continue to get mail as well, even though the stalker is being held in psychiatric custody. I collect it all. Evidence.
It’s only taken about four years and ten minutes.
On July 26, 1994, the criminal court of the city of New York issues my first temporary order of protection. The day after my order of protection goes into effect, the assistant district attorney orders a phone-company trap placed on my line. Between noon on July 29 and midnight on July 30, the stalker makes the following calls to me:
July 29: 12:04 P.M., 1:46 P.M., 3:51 P.M., 4:04 P.M., 4:50 P.M., 5:00 P.M., 5:05 P.M., 5:12 P.M., 5:24 P.M., 5:30 P.M., 5:42 P.M.
July 30: 12:03 A M., 7:28 A.M., 8:58 A.M., g:59 A.M., 10:10 A.M., 10:58 A.M., 12:19 P.M., 12:59 P.M., 1:5g P.M., 2:5g P.M., 3:14 P.M., 3:58 P.M., 5:00 P.M., 9:29 P.M., 11:59 P.M.
Every stalker sighting in my neighborhood, every letter or phone call to me, is now a violation. Between July 1994 and February 1995, the court issues twenty-six additional orders of protection against the stalker: six in August, five in September, two in October, four in November, four in December, four in January, and one in February.
The assistant district attorney calls with good news: The court has ordered the stalker into a residential psychiatric-treatment program. The first thing I do is take a long walk in Riverside Park. Alone. It’s the everyday things about life in New York I’ve missed most. I take the subway to the World Trade Center and walk up the length of the city. I stop anywhere I want and eat lunch in an outdoor café. And I sleep. Sometimes for as long as sixteen hours. I am suddenly years worth of tired.
I get calls from the stalker’s psychiatrists and social workers, who seem as loony as he is. They harangue me to “discuss his case” (as though I were in some way obligated to participate in his rehabilitation). This is on top of other calls I’ve gotten from well-meaning domestic-violence counselors who are routinely given these cases and from an investigator for the stalker’s defense, who even showed up at my apartment and asked me to reconsider pressing charges, because the stalker “may not know what he’s doing.”
I continue to get mail as well, even though the stalker is being held in psychiatric custody. I collect it all. Evidence. Proof that the stalker is not going to stop.
I receive a telegram from the psychiatric center, informing me that the stalker is ready to be released. I am being “duly notified” and should respond by calling his social worker and psychiatrist. When I do, they both assure me that their patient has been “docile as a little puppy,” showing no signs of his “earlier psychotic behavior.” They ask, “How do you feel about his release?” Followed by, “Do you know how to protect yourself?”
I have by this time changed my old number over to a fax line. It begins ringing incessantly, though no faxes come through. My neighbors start telling me they have spotted the stalker nearby.
On my way home from the two-six, where I’ve just met the new detectives assigned to my case and delivered the latest pieces of stalker mail, the cab slows to a stop on my corner, and I see him through the window, hiding behind his usual pay phone.
I tell the driver to circle the block and pull up in front of Mama Joy’s, my neighborhood deli, where they let me use the phone. I watch through the window of the store as the police come and take him away. A pathetic little encounter. The stalker slouches patiently while the detectives get out of the car, and he accompanies them placidly, as if he wants to be arrested.
My fax line continues to ring without producing incoming faxes. Later, the calls are traced to a phone in a holding cell at Riker’s Island.
This time, instead of a residential psychiatric program, the stalker gets sentenced to a year in jail.
While running errands a few blocks from my apartment, I think I see him. When I reach the assistant DA, she tells me, “It’s him. He got credit for time served and is already out.”
That afternoon, the mail arrives with an envelope from the stalker that contains several brochures on contraceptive devices and an elementary-school photo of him. He is arrested again within days.
There have been more violations, more court orders, and three grand jury appearances. I’m now on my third assistant DA, the first two having already moved on to other jobs. The stalker’s in jail at the moment, and although he’s had his phone and mail privileges revoked, he still manages to send me gift subscriptions to Gallery and Playboy, and he still calls my fax number, staying on the line for several minutes, even though all he can hear is the ear-piercing fax tone.
The stalker is now undergoing another psychiatric evaluation. If he doesn’t plead guilty to the latest charges and waive his right to trial, the case will go before a jury. The stalker has violated court orders so many times that the charge is now criminal contempt, a felony. What may have gotten the stalker into trouble is his harassment of me, but what’s elevated his charges from misdemeanor to felony is his chronic contempt of court. If convicted, the stalker could face more than twenty years in jail.
I’ve been thinking about the trial and what it will be like to appear on the witness stand. I worry about that. I don’t want to be in the same room with the stalker—not even a courtroom. I know that I should try to describe how eight years of unrelenting anxiety have damaged me in ways I suspect I’ll never repair. I now live in a state of permanent distraction. My short-term memory is shot. I’ve spent so many years having to plan each errand, every foray into the city, that there are moments now when I become lost. Just last week, I had to call a good friend so that she could tell me how to get back to my apartment from Broadway and Tenth. I mean, I know where I live; I just forgot how to get there. I’m not sure I will be able to do justice to the experience without breaking down, something I am loath to do. Especially in front of the stalker. That’s the problem: My case will be helped if I allow the court to see the impact the stalker has had on me, yet I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of hearing it. Not from me, anyway. The only thing I have to say in front of the stalker is that if I’m lucky, he’ll die in jail.
Sometimes I find myself reconsidering the early advice people gave me—advice I was determined not to heed until I’d gotten the police to protect me. Not long ago, I looked up shooting ranges in the yellow pages. I want to know what it feels like to shoot a gun. And there are times when I walk around New York and imagine myself living in another neighborhood. But I have no definite plans.
Just the other day, I received an envelope in the mail from the stalker. It was empty. My name and address appeared on the front as usual, but on the back, in the same lunatic scrawl, he’d written something new— a short message: Fuck you.
Some of the items I’ve received from the stalker over the years: 20 gift subscriptions to magazines from NBA inside Stuff to Hot Sex Calls; more than 90 invitations to Star Trek conventions; hundreds of assorted catalogs; enrollment in various clubs, from something called Creation to a sci-fi comic-book group; 47 brochures for vocational-training programs; multiple brochures for contraceptive devices; 1 black-and-white elementary-school picture of the stalker; 2 Christmas cards; 4 valentine’s Day cards; dozens of empty envelopes, some marked “From your boyfriend, Clark Kent”; scores of letters and postcards; thousands of voice messages captured on tape; 1 plastic bag full of jagged shards of broken glass hurled into the video store I’d just left.
This content is imported from OpenWeb. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.